The depths of space are known for inspiring feelings of awe and wonder; but the truth is that they are just as capable of inspiring feelings of terror and helplessness.
I will never forget that exact feeling when I, along with everyone else on New Sydney, first saw the sight of the battered hulls of the League ships as they came in from Farmark. Gaping holes where tons of materiel and thousands of crew had been flushed out into the vacuum of deep space. The proud insignia of the League of Four Worlds scorched by fusion fire and particle beam. A catastrophe. The images of that dreadful sight flashed across every vid screen, news sheet, and datalink.
Everywhere the citizens of the Four Worlds seemed to be walking about in dazed silence. A pall hung over our systems. We were not alone. And whoever they were, they meant business.
Our planets had been settled four centuries before, by pioneers determined to find habitable worlds rather than waiting to terraform them. Jumping farther and farther from the inhabited regions of the galaxy, they eventually arrived at the system we call Sharon. Two habitable worlds were found in that system: New Sydney and Pherat. Only three light years away was a second star system—Roger’s Star—with an inhabitable world: Fairhaven. Four light years beyond that was Kittim with another inhabitable world: Farmark.
Those pioneers had had limited resources and a span of seven light years from one settlement to the farthest was enough. It gets costly to send anti-matter fueled message drones much farther than that. Besides, we knew that eventually the supply lines of the Commonwealth would extend out our way and whatever we lacked would be met.
Except that those supply lines never came. We never heard from the Commonwealth again.
Those pioneers had jumped over seven hundred light years before finding the Sharon system. They had assumed that within a few decades Commonwealth vessels would arrive and establish trade—but they were wrong. They did not have the resources to fuel a ship capable of jumping all the way back to Commonwealth space, not when such resources, meager as they were, were required just to maintain communication and trade among our modest little League.
And so the League of Four Worlds went about its affairs, adjusting to the idea that we were truly alone out here in the great sweep of the Milky Way. What had happened would be a mystery. Why had we never been followed? Our expedition had been no secret and many such expeditions had charted new worlds, setting up the frontier, before being subsumed into the expanding borders of the Commonwealth of Humanity. Whatever had happened would remain a mystery for at least another three hundred years, for that would be when the first radio signals would reach us from Commonwealth space—assuming any had been sent out this way. If not, then it would be another thousand years before we received a reply from the messages sent that way from the League four hundred years ago.
There were many schools of thought, of course. Some said that disease had likely overrun the Commonwealth. Others believed perhaps civil war had arisen. Some believed that perhaps alien invaders had destroyed the Commonwealth after the pioneers had set forth. That theory was gaining popularity in the days since the Battle of Farmark.
Six months ago, ’scopes on Farmark spotted what appeared to be a fleet of vessels moving from the edge of the system. They did not appear to have dropped out of hyperspace, but seemed to have crossed the great void between stars. Attempts to communicate with the fleet were unsuccessful. When a delegation of diplomatic vessels was sent from Farmark to greet the fleet it was immediately destroyed.
Farmark sent hyperspace message drones to New Sydney, Pherat, and Fairhaven requesting assistance. With forces assembled, ships of the League went to engage the intruder and were soundly defeated. The alien vessels did not appear to have hyperspace engines, but their weapons technology was extremely advanced and their hulls seemed to be able to take everything our vessels could throw at them, with minimal effect. They devastated the League ships and created chaos among the Four Worlds. From their position in the system, the alien ships would not reach Farmark for months, and the inhabitants of that world were doing everything they could to get offworld. When the aliens did get to Farmark, they destroyed what was left of the task force and bombarded the planet. The last information we have came with the fleeing League fleet and hundreds of refugee vessels. We have no idea how many survived or remain on the planet. And no idea how many took their chances in slowboats headed for Roger’s Star and Fairhaven, taking years to cross the gulf in between those outposts of humanity.
League defense intelligence estimated that if the alien invaders set their sights on Roger’s Star they would be in that system in 15 years. Now, I know fifteen years sounds like a sufficient period of time to defend against an invasion but fleet commanders were not optimistic. They maintained that there was no way that the ships of the Four Worlds could advance sufficiently in technology in 15 years to repel the alien invasion.
The Chancellor of the League was a native of Farmark. She listened to the briefings. She saw, as we all did, the disturbing images coming in from what was left of the Fleet. She knew she had but one option.
I can remember the night she made the announcement of her decision. She stood before the Great Assembly and spoke the words that now every school child of the Four Worlds knows by heart: “In our darkest hour, we must reach out to that source of light that had burned the brightest in all of human civilization. Unable to repel or reason with the invaders ourselves, we have no choice but to try to establish contact with the Commonwealth and enlist its aid.”
The Commonwealth! I can remember how that word made my spine tingle. It was as if she had said she were going to enlist the help of the Roman Legions, the Allied Forces, or the Belt Rangers. It was a name of might and power from the past. We had no idea whether the Commonwealth even existed, and if they did whether they would be willing to help. And if they were willing, whether they would be able to help. But I began to discern the true genius of her plan: whatever the Commonwealth might be able to do for us, it had already done one thing—it had given us hope. It was the first time most of us had felt a feeling other than terror or helplessness.
I remember that night well. For it was the night that I, and thousands like me, volunteered for the expedition to go.